McCain also made a huge mistake when he de-emphasized Obama's inexperience and argued that he, not Obama, would be the real candidate of change. This premise seemed to lack credibility, given that Obama was the first serious black presidential candidate in history and had made "change" his mantra for nearly two years.
Experience. The idea of Obama as a national-security neophyte remained worrisome for voters to the end, but McCain further muddied his message when he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. She was popular with conservatives on social issues but she lacked national security experience, making it much more difficult for McCain to criticize Obama credibly on this score. "They walked away from their brand and their strength," Greenberg says. "That was a colossal error."
In the end, Obama won all the states carried by Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004 and added eight states carried by Republican George Bush that year, including Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Mexico.
Exit polls showed some remarkable shifts in the electorate. Race, long a source of deep divisions and bitterness, was considered a wild card, with some pollsters wondering if a significant number of white voters would reject Obama simply because he is African-American. But 9 out of 10 voters said race wasn't an important factor for them.
About 62 percent of voters said the economy was their biggest concern—far and away the most important issue. About 19 percent listed Iraq or terrorism, and 9 percent said healthcare. Only 35 percent approved of the Iraq war, which McCain had pledged to win and Obama promised to end as quickly and responsibly as possible, giving Obama an advantage. More than 8 out of 10 Americans believed the country was headed in the wrong direction, and 7 out of 10 disapproved of President Bush's job performance—a fact that deeply hurt McCain's Republican candidacy because of guilt by association.
Now that he is moving toward governing rather than getting elected, Obama might be wise to follow Roosevelt's example in more areas than confidence building. "You've got to be flexible," Dallek says. "The realities you are dealing with are always changing." He adds, "you need to go about it in a very practical, pragmatic way. It's like a quarterback. You try one play and, if it doesn't work, you try again. The New Deal was a series of experiments." Adds Al From, chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council: "Obama's most important thing is to keep what is essentially his big promise—the promise that allowed him to catapult over Hillary Clinton and win the nomination and the general election—that he would bring change and a postpartisan politics." To that end, From says, Obama should name Republicans to key cabinet positions, perhaps by keeping Robert Gates as defense secretary, at least for a while, or installing GOP Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, a foreign policy specialist, as secretary of state. "That would send a message that he is serious about a new kind of politics," From says. Notes Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary for Bill Clinton: "There is absolutely no trust up there [on Capitol Hill]. The first thing they need is trust."
Obama's first public move, however, was to offer the job of White House chief of staff to Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, a fierce partisan and former senior official in the Clinton White House. This suggested that Obama realized that he needs some experienced hands at his side. The Emanuel pick also showed that he wants the advice of a tough-minded insider who has no qualms about confronting his adversaries, so Obama can take the kinder, gentler approach.
On October 31, Obama told CNN that he would set five immediate priorities: "stabilize" the financial system, move toward energy independence, enact some form of healthcare reform, grant middle-class tax cuts, and strengthen the education system. But he made clear that the nation has entered an era of limits because the economy is in such bad shape.